Freedom Summer 1965: Sunday June 20, 1965 #2

Antioch Baptist Church, Camden AL June 1965 Photo by John Worcester

Antioch Baptist Church, Camden AL June 1965
Photo by John Worcester

Fearing the armed men might return, I spent a restless night on the floor of Antioch Baptist church,while my exhausted co-workers slept and our leader, Major Johns, kept watch over us. He asked us to clean up before the deacons arrived to prepare for morning services. I splashed cold water on my face and ran a comb through my straight hair, and pressed my hot hands over my wrinkled dress before joining others on the steps to greet incoming parishoners.

“I couldn’t help but look around the sanctuary, hoping I wasn’t staring rudely. The church people were all Black, which was unfamiliar to me. Some of the adults smiled and welcomed us, some looked away, some looked anxious. The ladies fanned themselves with paper fans from Brownlee’s Funeral Parlor with bible verses printed on one side. I’m sure Rev. Freeman gave a wonderful sermon, but I could scarcely keep my eyes open in the hot humid sanctuary where I had spent a sleepless night. Kids were all over us before and after services. “Where ya’ll from? Do you know Dr. King? Why is your hair like that [straight]? Are you comin’ to our house?”
“Yes, Dr. King sent me. That’s right, I hope to visit your family. Are your parents registered?” I tried to remember what we’d been told to say, but when it came to my hair, I just offered, “Would you like to touch it?” Two little girls stroked my long, straight brown hair, and one said, “Oooh it’s soft!” I had read about the study that was used in Brown v. Board of Education in which the black children preferred white dolls to ones that looked like them, so I quickly and sincerely said, “Well, I like yours more. It keeps its shape better in this heat.” Excerpt from Chapter 4 “This Bright Light of Ours”  www.thisbrightlightofours.com

@ Bob Adelman

@ Bob Adelman

I tried to practice what we had learned at the SCLC SCOPE Orientation in Atlanta a week earlier. Our mission was to assist the African American community with voter registration and to demonstrate that our belief in equality. At first, variations of the local dialect made it difficult for me to understand everything the local adults and children said, but smiles and hugs were a universal language – especially with the children – and they helped me catch on.

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FREEDOM SUMMER 1965: Sunday June 20 #1

This morning I joined millions in viewing the memorial for Rev Senator Clementa Pinckney in Charleston South Carolina. We civil rights veterans and activists also mourn the lack of progress we have made, despite our efforts. Attacks on good people in Black churches did not begin this week. A NY Times article dated June 20, 1965 announced

Dr. King at Antioch Baptist Church, Camden AL where we were stalked by the KKK. Photo copyright Bob Adelman

Dr. King at Antioch Baptist Church, Camden AL. Young woman in sunglasses, Bessie Pettway; polka dot dress, Virginia Boykin Burrell; behind her in hat, Carrie Robinson; young man with sunglasses and towel on head, Robert Powell; Rosetta Marsh Anderson behind him; front right looking down, Sim Pettway Sr.  Photo copyright Bob Adelman

 

the voting rights project I worked with fifty years ago: “A new summer thrust by young civil rights workers into the rural South begins this week. The project is called the Summer Community Organization and Political Education, or SCOPE, and is under the auspices of Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. About 800 volunteers from colleges, churches and unions will work in 60 counties in six states….The work will be similar in many ways to that of the volunteers who were sent to Mississippi last summer by the Council of Federated Organizations.” …[although SCLC was involved, most staff for Freedom Summer 1964 were provided by SNCC]

We quickly out how “similar” our work would be to that of Mississippi, where the three young men were murdered their first day on their project. Here is a memory of my first night in Wilcox County AL, where I was assigned.

Excerpt from “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Movement,” University of Alabama Press 2014:

On wobbly legs, we crept into Antioch Baptist Church at 2:30 a.m., using as little light as possible. Major Johns, a short, solidly built thirty-year-old who was one of our two SCLC field directors, greeted and hushed us. —- We got so quiet I could hear the cicadas again. Everything about Major said no nonsense. He surveyed us with stern eyes and took a deep breath. “Y’all gonna have to sleep here tonight. A certain local who was gonna take some of you was visited by Sheriff Jenkins and had his mind changed. Now get some sleep.” There was no question and answer period.

We made ourselves as comfortable as we could on the wooden pews. Major shut out all the lights. As I was wondering where we would sleep tomorrow night and hoping it would be more comfortable, I heard truck doors slam and booted feet outside the church. Major shouted in a low voice, “Get down and stay down till I say.” Bob Block, a white field worker I had just met 10 hrs earlier and I rolled under the same pew and squeezed together. “What’s going on?” “Oh probably some crackers out there trying to scare us.” “It’s working on me,” I said, trying not to think about the men outside. Then there were shots. I clung to Bob who didn’t seem to mind our sudden closeness. He whispered, “They won’t kill us tonight. Welcome to Wilcox County, that’s all.” I held my breath and prayed. – For more about this summer and about Maria Gitin’s book, “This Bright Light of Ours” www.thisbrightlightofours.com

Antioch Baptist Church Attacked and Shot Up July 1965

Local youth examine one of the shotgun blasts from attack on Antioch Baptist Church while local civil rights activists slept inside.

Local youth examine one of the shotgun blasts the morning after an attack on civil rights activists who had been sleeping inside the SCLC-SCOPE office. Antioch Baptist Church, Camden AL July 1965. J. Worcester photo.

While much more about this story, in the words of survivors and witnesses, is in my book, “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” www.thisbrightlightofours.com, today I am posting this photo to ask your help in identifying the two youth standing in the doorway the next morning. We were all in shock at the brutal attack on our Baptist Church sanctuary and office that left one of our SClC co-workers in the hospital for months. Can anyone reading this help ID the two young people standing in the doorway looking at the shotgun blast? Photo by John Worcester who worked with SCLC SCOPE in 1965. Please post replies here in comment box. They will not be posted unless you give consent. Thank you!

Additional information about this event:https://thislittlelight1965.wordpress.com/2014/06/29/boys-attacked-in-church-june-29-1965/

Antioch Baptist Church, Camden AL – 143 Years Strong

From our first sleepless night on the floor of Antioch Baptist Church in June 1965, we voter registration field workers considered the church our home. Even after men with guns shot up the church, even after they attacked local youth co-workers who were guarding the building, even after David Colston was murdered in the parking lot in 1966 – Antioch Baptist felt like the one safe place in Camden for civil rights workers. Whatever religion we had (or didn’t have) before The Movement, once we were in Alabama, we all became Baptists. Freedom songs, hymns, prayers and petitions filled the air. Local leaders and brave pastors like Rev. SJ Freeman welcomed mass meetings, and even hosted Martin Luther King Jr, defending the right to assemble against the powers that tried to abolish this freedom of speech. Most importantly, the community persevered and preserved what is now one of the oldest active congregations in Wilcox County.

Antioch Baptist Church during renovation

Antioch Baptist Church during renovation

Antioch Baptist Church after renovation - John Matthews was one of several community leaders who worked on restoration and historic designation.
Antioch Baptist Church after renovation – John Matthews was one of several community leaders who worked on restoration and historic designation.

Welcome to Wilcox County 1965

SNCC & SCLC Cooperat at SF State to Recruit Student Civil Rights Workers

As a freshman at San Francisco State in 1965, I joined the Summer Conference on Community Organizing and Political Education (SCOPE). The project was the brainchild of Reverend Hosea Williams, one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s top aides and a chief organizer of the recent Selma to Montgomery march, as well as the 1963 March on Washington. In anticipation of the imminent passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, SCOPE’s mission was to recruit and train college students to work with local leaders to identify, educate and register as many disenfranchised Black voters as possible. After an intensive five-day orientation in Atlanta, I was assigned to rural Wilcox County, Alabama, where the judge, sheriff and mayor were outspoken about belief in segregation and racism was public policy. The Ku Klux Klan was highly active, and the white community had been silent during months of police tear-gassings, beatings, and arrests of local Black demonstrators (mostly young students from Camden Academy) before we arrived. They were fighting nonviolently for a good education, voting rights and jobs, none of which were available to Black residents. Their struggle quickly became ours as we jumped into the dangerous now nearly forgotten Freedom Summer of 1965.
Excerpt from This Bright Light of Ours on my first night in Wilcox County:
It was after 4:00 a.m. when we heard truck doors slam as booted feet quickly surrounded Antioch Baptist Church where our exhausted group of newly trained civil rights recruits was trying to get some sleep. “Get down and stay down till I say,” shouted our leader Major Johns. Then there were shots—unmistakable, shotgun shots. I moved closer to Bob, a fellow civil rights field worker I had met only ten hours earlier. “They won’t kill us tonight,” he whispered as I shivered in fear. “Not likely anyway. I’ve only been cattle prodded once and never been arrested yet. Welcome to Wilcox County, that’s all.” I held my breath and prayed.
© All rights reserved by Maria Gitin (formerly Joyce Brians) 2012. This Bright Light of Ours publication announcement forthcoming.

In Wilcox County, SNCC Student civil rights workers before us included Charles Bonner, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Mants, Judy Richardson, Bernard and Colia Lafayette and Ruth Howard, among others. Our summer 1965 project worked cooperatively with Selma SNCC in Wilcox, especially with Charles Bonner and Amos Snell. SNCC workers after us included Martha Prescod Norman Noonan and Willy Squire of the SNCC Alabama Project, an all-Black voter registration community outreach project. For more information see: www.crmvet.org

John Matthews Antioch Baptist Church After Renovation 2009

For Maria’s first meeting with John Matthews in 1965 see: https://thislittlelight1965.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/civil-rights-worker-student-reunion-in-corn-field/

Letter from a student civil rights worker in Camden, Alabama

This letter is copyright by Maria Gitin (formerly Joyce Brians) and is a section of a book to be published in 2014.. It may not be used in any print or other format without permission in writing from the author.

June 20, 1965 First Public Letter Continued…
Around 2:30 a.m. we arrived at Antioch Baptist Church in Camden, Alabama. We had to sleep on the floor without blankets or pillows. Never have I slept on a sweeter bed. But we only slept two hours when we were awakened. Major Johns had stood guard over us because there were Klansmen driving up and down in front of the church. Some of the kids left then for their counties. We had been promised a place to stay by a certain Negro who backed out at the last minute. The rest of us were nearly stupefied with hunger, exhaustion, and a little bit of fear. We had to find housing in a town where whites hate us and most Negroes are afraid of us.

Freedom Fighters: The Next Generation

In the morning, I got dressed and went to the church service. There were only a few people there—lots of children and a few ladies, no men. After church I talked to the children who gathered round me and asked them to help me canvas for voters. They told me their parents wouldn’t register because they just don’t care anymore. The children are beautiful—they still have hope. There isn’t hardly anyone in Camden between 18 and 35 years. There is nothing here for youth—no jobs—no schools—no social life—no opportunity for advancement.

Sunday night I was initiated to my first mass meeting. It was held in the little community church at Coy, a nearby village. Major [Johns] and Rev. Harrell preached for two hours about the importance of registering to vote and the people really responded. Continue reading

Bob, Dan & The Man with a Gun

 

Dan Harrell

 

Excerpt from This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours ©mariagitin2010

Photo ©Bob Fitch 1966

http://www.BobFitchPhoto.com

My boyfriend Bob Block was surprised and didn’t seem especially pleased to see me when we hooked up in Pine Apple. He looked at my legs and shoes and said, “You’re gonna hafta keep up. We don’t have all summer, you know.” That summer, it seemed like every day lasted for an eternity, the way it does when you are a child.  But Bob was right, pretty soon the Voting Rights Bill would pass and federal examiners would come help these folks register, backed up by federal troops if necessary. Maybe they wouldn’t need us anymore.

Later, while John G. drove me back to the church before taking Bob down to Lower Peachtree, Bob told me what had happened to him yesterday.

“Dan and I were walking along when this white guy appears out of nowhere. I mean we didn’t hear him comin’, see a truck, nothing. Just like that, he takes his pistol, raises it right to Harrell’s head and presses it against his temple.”

“You know I would kill you as soon as look at you, doncha?”

“I believe I do,” was all that Dan replied.

“Man, that Dan, he was so cool. I was just about to beg and cry myself.”

Bob said as the seconds ticked into years he saw himself just as dead as Dan right there on that country lane, knowing this guy would never be caught or punished.

“And”, Bob explained, “This was just an ordinary guy, not one of the sheriff’s posse or anything, just an ordinary cracker. They can just do this stuff. Man! S–t!” He lit a cigarette and blew smoke out the open car window.

My heart was racing, “How did it end?”

“That cracker just lowered the gun, snorted and spit on the ground and walked away just as fast as he’d appeared.”

Then I told Bob what happened out in Arlington, about being chased all afternoon by a white man in a pickup with a rifle. “He must’ve been related to my guy. Dan didn’t even tell me about what happened with you!”

Bob said, “Yeah, I already heard.”

It made me feel good that our elders knew we were a couple and that he had some kind of idea what was going on with me even if the information didn’t flow both ways.  As an eighteen-year old boy he wasn’t the greatest at telling me what I wanted to hear, which was that he’d protect me, no matter what. How could he, when we’d chosen to put ourselves in danger?  Being threatened and scared went with the territory and he always claimed he wasn’t afraid. He was likely shell-shocked before I even arrived, what with the tear-gassing, beating and harassment, but he also liked the excitement. That’s a boy for you. I tried to talk and write letters that sounded like my boyfriend Bob, but inside my guts were churning.

There were so many incidents that I can’t recall them all. It was the same all over the South, in every county, every day for years for Movement folks. 95% of them were black folks who pressed on in a mostly nonviolent battle for freedom and justice for all against a continuous onslaught of violence and hatred. Not only were the local grassroots folks the real leaders of The Movement, they saved our little white behinds time and again. Sometimes we knew what they had done and could thank them; sometimes they just kept it to themselves.

Author’s note: Rev Daniel Harrell and his wife Juanita Harrell worked in Wilcox County Alabama on voting rights, literacy and community economic development from 1964 until their untimely deaths, both still in their forties. For more stories of unheralded heroes of the civil rights movement, watch for upcoming publication of “This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours” by Maria Gitin. Thank you for sharing your comments and this page with others who are committed to honoring the memory of our civil rights veterans.